Sunday, November 9, 2014

Digital Literacy: Important for Young Learners?

As part of a continuous collaboration among educators interested in digital learningMargaret Simon hosts a weekly Digital Learning round-up on her blog:  DigiLit Sunday.  Stop by Reflections on the Teche (today's link-up) to read, discover, and link.  

This week has given me much to think about in relation to digital literacy with young learners.  A few recent posts have popped into my feed in the last week:
In addition to these posts supporting or questioning the use of technology with young learners, I recently attended our district's professional day:  Hilliard University.  This day was full of energy as educators shared the work they are doing in public education and the possibilities for our students.  There were discussions of blended learning, literacy, student voice, and collaboration.  There were discussions of learning beyond the four walls of our classrooms and connecting learners to larger networks.

Finally, like every week, I've had opportunities to work side by side with young learners.  It is this work that most often shapes my thinking about whether young learners should use digital devices.  All of these opportunities and conversations have been swirling as I've considered what is best for the young learners I work with every day.

The Problem with All or Nothing
The questions aren't easy.  There are many things to think about when making decisions for young learners.  There are important considerations for their development, learning, and growth.  My grandma used to say, "Everything in moderation, nothing in excess."  I often think of her when these conversations of all or nothing begin.  We seem to be this way about many things in our society.  Left - right.  Only phonics - no phonics.  Banned books.  Digital books - no digital books.  Digital tools - no digital tools.

Perhaps it is when we begin these conversations of all or nothing, yes or no, that we need to step back to wonder if we are asking the right questions.  This is the case with this, "Should young learners have digital tools?", conversation.  Perhaps the question is, how can we best utilize digital learning for young learners?  How do we help young learners navigate new literacies?  What is worth their time?  What is not?

Let's begin with the conversation started by Nancie Atwell.  In her recent post, Nancie stated, "I have concerns about them [iPads] in the younger grades. In fact, I think the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake."  I have much respect for Atwell, but as a primary teacher I see the use of technology in young classrooms much differently.  One of the first professional books I remember impacting my teaching was Nancie Atwell's, In the Middle.  At the time I was teaching sixth grade and trying to find a way to develop the readers and writers in my classroom.  Atwell transformed my teaching.  She made me see the value of a workshop and I began finding ways to create time for the students in my classroom to write.  It would take years for me to feel comfortable in the workshop and to this day I constantly work to improve my practice.  Yet, without a workshop students wouldn't have ownership of their learning.  The workshop she told me about years ago has evolved over time.  The workshop is now part of a digitally connected learning community.

Now let's consider the conversation of Troy and Kristin.  Like the two of them, I have found digital literacies to be opening new doors for my students.  Lately my workshop, inspired many years ago by Nancie Atwell, has been transformed by the digital world that has stepped into my classroom.  As a teacher of primary children, when I first began trying new tools and technologies I wasn't sure my students could or should be using them.  I found blogging to be a simple place to begin to step into the world of technology and what I saw pushed me further especially because my students were so engaged by the writing on a blog.  Most importantly, I became less necessary in the classroom.  Students found their voices.  They discovered their messages mattered to their friends and to others beyond our classroom --- beyond our school.  It wasn't long until my students pushed me past blogging and into other tools for composition.

What Digital Learning Is and What It Is Not
I'm not sure the question is a "yes students should have tools" or a "no students shouldn't have tools" question.  In her article, Ziemke states,  "We want kids to be intentional about how they choose the tool and think about how the tool enables them to revise, alter the layout and share the writing." Our responsibility as educators has always been to develop the literate lives of our students (see NCTE 21st Century Literacies:  A Policy Research Brief).  In today's world, being literate in print isn't enough.  We would be doing a disservice to ignore the digital media that surrounds us every day.  Let's be honest, our news, information, financial decisions, and communication are driven by digital technologies.

The challenge we must rise to is asking the right questions and making thoughtful decisions.  I often hear from those resistant to technology that children need to play, to discover, to create, to communicate so they shouldn't use technology, yet that is exactly what technology allows when used thoughtfully.

When I become concerned about technology:
  • When students are using it to learn rote tasks.
  • When students are using it to answer multiple choice questions or complete, what I'll call, "digital worksheets."
  • When technology is used to keep kids busy.
  • When children are only playing video games.
  • When children are unsupervised.
  • When the time on devices exceeds the time to play.
  • When children are not given choices about technology.  
  • When children do not have fluid access to technology.  

What technology can be:
  • ONE way to read a story.
  • ONE option of many possibilities.
  • A place for children to create.
  • A way for children to share their thinking with others.
  • A way to connect with other learners.
  • A way to collaborate and build something together. 
  • A way to find answers to questions.
  • A place for students to have a voice TODAY.  

New Opportunities for Literacy
For me the question isn't "yes technology" or "no technology" but, instead, how do we utilize technology to leverage learning?   I don't have all of the answers to this question or the other thoughtful ones we should be asking.  What I do know is that some of my students prefer to use technology.  For some students technology allows them to find ways to share their thinking when capturing their complex understandings, within the stages of beginning writing development, can be hard.  That being able to draw, write, and talk about a topic can help them to think deeply about books, concepts, and ideas.  That being able to share their thinking gives them power now.  That listening, reading, commenting, and considering the work shared by friends can help them learn to consider new perspectives.

A few years ago I had a young learner in my class who found writing tasks very difficult.  He was receiving reading intervention services and didn't see himself as a reader or a writer.  As students shared at the end of our workshops, he never shared.  He didn't want to take his books home from his intervention teacher.  One day, he wrote a post on his blog about Jan Thomas.  He shared one of her books with our learning community.  Students loved his post and began wanting her books in the classroom.  Across the year, he would blog about books and became the expert.  Friends wanted his advice and asked about books he was reading.  He became a reader, not because of the skills he was learning, but because of the opportunities created through digital literacies.  I don't think this would have happened for him without these digital opportunities.

Since that time my students have continually pushed my thinking about digital literacies.  They've helped me to see that digital learning can:
  • develop oral language
  • allow opportunities to purposefully create and compose for a real audience
  • make learning play-like
  • ease the challenges of writing for young learners
  • grow the complexity of writing for young learners
  • provide alternate reading opportunities for beginning readers
  • broaden our perspective
  • develop our empathy
  • strengthen a community
Ultimately, no matter the age of our students, it isn't an all or nothing question.  It's about choice.  Digital tools are one way students can participate in our literate world.  It isn't all or nothing, one or the other.  Some of my students prefer a book, some a pencil, some markers, and some an iPad.  The opportunity to make those decisions with purpose will remain a part of our classroom.

To me, it's not



It's this AND that.  It's about choice and opportunity for both.


  1. I love this post! So much thought, good questions, good answers. Yes, we need digital literacy but it is about how we use it. Thoughtful teachers like yourself are getting the most out of technology and are using it in ways to enhance and to motivate students. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Fran Alvarado ThibodeauxNovember 9, 2014 at 9:13 AM

    Excellent information. I'll share with my daughter-in-law, a teacher and Mother of my 2 and 3 year old granddaughters.

  3. Bravo! I'm having so much fun reading conversations about this. Your list of technology concerns and what it can be is fantastic. Can I share it?

  4. Absolutely! Share it --- and grow it. ;o)


  5. Thank you for your post. I too agree with your statement - everything in moderation.

  6. I knew your thinking would push my thinking forward. :) You are so right about the either/or debate and I really appreciate your list of what technology is not. Thanks Cathy!

  7. This article made my first visit to your blog and because
    of it I'll be enthusiastic to come back and explore more
    about your thinking and experiences in the classroom.
    You've captured so beautifully true educator's insights
    and feelings around tech and learning.
    We are some teachers starting a blog in swedish about
    developing pupils writing. After reading your excellent
    article I would like to translate sections of it and refer
    to your blog. What do you think?
    Peter Andersson, in northern Sweden.

  8. Thanks, Cathy, for providing the perspective of "both/and," as well as the way that you have arrived at your thinking about digital literacy and learning.

    Your list of possibilities for digital learning is both thoughtful and creative. Thanks for continuing the conversation.